In a dark, abandoned basement beneath the bustling metropolis of New York City, an unnamed narrator begins: “I am an invisible man.”
The darkness surrounding him is kept at bay by the brightness of exactly 1,369 light bulbs, loosely hung and powered via a stolen electrical feed from Monopolated Light & Power. There is danger here, and pressure, and mystery. The narrator is in hibernation, hiding from an ominous figure named Ras the Destroyer. But how did he get here? What trauma has he endured? Why does he feel disembodied … “simply because others refuse to see” him?
What’s going on?
What’s going on is a trenchant dramatization of race relations in America. Ellison’s chief theme – that racism dehumanizes all involved participants, essentially blinding them to the real world and making them act as puppets in a tragic comedy – is reinforced throughout the story in fascinating scenes of magical realism (some of them horrific). This is an alternate dimension we’ve entered, where the plot devices of science fiction are employed to bring race and power relations to life.
Ellison’s novel begins with mystery … and then a bang: we’re transported back twenty years to the narrator’s graduation from high school. An articulate, intelligent, and handsome negro, our hero wins a speech competition and is invited to a local white social club to recite his winning entry. But before he is allowed to speak, the members of the club order him, shirtless, into a ring full of scared young black men, blindfold each participant, and force them to beat one another unconscious in a dreadful “battle royal”.
After losing this humiliating contest, the narrator and other boxers are lined up and told to collect an assortment of coins scattered across the floor. Each one of them rushes out onto an electrified piece of flooring, forcing agonized yelps and spastic twitches as they claw feverishly for the coins. Finally, his mouth clotted with the metallic taste of his own blood, the narrator is allowed to deliver his speech. Heckled by the disapproving assemblage of white men, he manages to stumble through obsequiously. He is given a briefcase containing a scholarship to a Southern negro college.
The plot itself seems relatively straightforward: the hero attends college, where he excels until being expelled for taking a white Founder into an undesirable neighborhood (they meet a negro sharecropper who has somehow “accidentally” impregnated his own daughter). Exiled to New York City, the boy then discovers that he has been blacklisted from all respectable employment. But he meets a sensitive white man who offers him a job at a local paint factory, where he is responsible for adding ten drops of black liquid to each can of paint. As he stirs the paint, it turns a brilliant white before his eyes. But our hero eventually uses the wrong mixture, ruins the paint, and is then fired for causing a disastrous explosion. He is given shock treatments in a frightening, sterile hospital until he has recovered, and temporarily loses all sense of himself.
One afternoon he witnesses a sidewalk eviction and, incensed at the treatment of an elderly black couple by the white men evicting them, makes an impromptu speech which triggers a riot against the movers. A member of “The Brotherhood” – a kind of Communist group led by a shadowy cadre of white, privileged men – overhears this speech and enlists the narrator into their ranks. During his first speech, the narrator lights such a fire in the audience’s belly that some members of the Brotherhood want him cast away. He must learn to speak more scientifically, and less emotionally, and is sent to train in the methods of his new brothers.
As his training concludes, the protagonist is given a new name, assigned to Harlem, and begins organizing his fellow brothers and sisters with real skill and enthusiasm. He feels as if he is “making history” – important, successful, alive and highly visible to his fellow men. The media fawn over his speeches. But not everyone is happy: a fellow named Ras the Exhorter (who feels that the Brotherhood is a sham, a proxy for the white power structure already in place) begins to cause trouble for him. The narrator and his friend, brother Tod Clifton, get into a fight with Ras, then flee. Soon the baseless accusations of another brother against the narrator force the Brotherhood to demote him for a time, and he is removed from his post in Harlem and ordered to work in a more remote part of the city until an investigation has been made into his activities.
This begins our narrator’s descent into a disillusioned revolutionary. After strangely voyeuristic affairs with several women, the narrator is returned to Harlem. He finds brother Tod Clifton selling dancing black Sambo dolls on the streets, disgusted with the Brotherhood and its rhetoric. Clifton is shot dead fleeing from the police, and a Harlem race riot erupts in the wake of his funeral. In the days leading up to the riot, the narrator assumes the disguise of a well-heeled character named Rinehart: donning dark sunglasses and a white hat, he is mistaken at times for a pimp, lover, hipster, gambler, crook, and minister.
As the narrator “becomes” Rinehart, people treat him differently depending upon the context in which he appears. He realizes that this man Rinehart has, like a chameleon, managed to adapt to all aspects of “white” society, but at the expense of his own unique identity. The “real” Rinehart, if there is one, remains invisible, unseen. The narrator realizes that he, too, is like Rinehart – the Brotherhood, the school, his employers – they all see him only as a black man, not as an individual. Dressed as himself again, he begins to undermine the Brotherhood’s mission, succinctly phrased in one scene:
“That’s Rinehartism – cynicism …”
“Cynicism,” I said.
“Not cynicism – realism. The trick is to take advantage of them in their own best interest.”
I sat forward in my chair, suddenly conscious of the unreality of the conversation. “But who is to judge? Jack? The committee?”
“We judge through cultivating scientific objectivity,” he said with a voice that had a smile in it, and suddenly I saw the hospital machine, felt as though locked in again.
The novel ends with a fiery street battle between Ras (now dubbed “the Destroyer”), our hero, the denizens of Harlem, and the mounted police. A fierce Ras, mounted on his own horse and dressed in outrageous tribal battle gear – spear, shield, head-dress and all – is eventually pierced through the cheeks by a spear thrown back at him by the narrator. Our protagonist flees underground to hide from the chaos of the riots, and from Ras, and to think … eventually deciding to end his hibernation and shed his invisible skin: he will emerge a unique individual, in order to speak for all men, no matter the color.
Ellison details this nameless narrator’s path from humiliated youth, to eager student, to disappointed exile, to disillusioned wanderer, to hopeless worker, to hopeful activist, to talented community organizer, to jaded revolutionary, to paranoid lover, to enlightened anarchist with language and imagery reminiscent of jazz (apparently Ellison wrote “on the side” and considered music to be his true calling). The writing is wonderful, truly original from beginning to end.
Initially, the narrator seems somewhat passive, drifting naively along from one flawed institution to another. But this is the novel’s genius: by avoiding a diatribe against these flawed organizations, and instead dramatizing the often comic hypocrisy inherent within them, the actual narrator (Ellison) remains invisible. Working behind the scenes, the author has exposed us to the full range of emotions he has experienced as a black man living in America. By the final lines of the novel, we need no convincing: we believe the protagonist when he says it’s time to rise up out of his basement, and assert his own individuality:
Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos – ask Rinehart, he’s a master of it – or imagination.
… Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.
… Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?
And so Ellison’s hero, now fully aware of the veils that have obscured his vision, emerges from the basement a fully realized human being: colorless, raceless, classless, and empowered to finally use his significant rhetorical skills to awaken others from the nightmare landscape he’s been moving through.
This was an excellent book, containing layer upon layer of symbolism, political metaphor, and mythology. I look forward to reading it again.
This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.
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